By MICHAEL FORSTER ROTHBART • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA — A blue and white sign stands in the grass at the entrance to Southside Mall in the town of Oneonta: “JOBS! Cooperstown All-Star Village APPLY NOW.” In either direction, along the mile-long commercial strip from Wal-Mart to Home Depot, at least eight stores advertise available positions.
Outside Home Depot, in the afternoon Monday, May 17, two employees in masks help an older customer with curbside pickup, loading 2×4 boards over the passenger seat into his Buick sedan. The store has more than 70 employees and is now hiring people for eight positions, mostly part-time.
“We’re short six people, now that the college students just left,” said the older employee, who declined to be identified.
It’s a bit of a Christmas story, coming out of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, of all things.
It involves at least four of Pope Gregory’s “Seven Virtues” – Charity, Patience, Kindness and Equanimity. (The Seven Deadly Sins, of course, have a higher profile.)
Famously, talk is cheap, when it comes to bipartisanship (and generally). But three county representatives – Andrew Marietta, Andrienne Martini and Andrew Stammel – talked that talk AND walked that walk in recent days.
The winner: Objective governance for the good of all 59,493 of us,
Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Working Family Party member, small “i” and Big “I” i(I)ndependents, Libertarians, etc.
By the county board’s December meeting on the 2nd, it was clear the Republicans had put themselves in a trap that could have lost them majority control for only the second time since the Board of Representatives was created in the early 1970s.
No need to relive every particular, but when state Sen.-elect Peter Oberacker resigned Monday, Nov. 16, the Republicans fast-tracked the succession.
Democrats only found out about plans to seat Oberacker’s hand-picked successor, Jennifer Mickle, the day before the Thursday, Nov. 19, Administration Committee meeting, too late to come up with their own candidate.
The Admin Committee, 3-1, on party lines, then approved Mickle, (who, aside from the controversy, appears to be an able candidate). Without Admin approval, Democrats needed a 2/3rd majority to have their candidate even considered by the full board.
For a while, it looked like ill-will and recriminations would be the gifts under the county Christmas tree this year.
The Republicans, it seems, hadn’t fully considered how this might play out: With Oberacker’s seat vacant, neither party had a majority under the county’s complicated weighted-voting system.
So neither party could fill the vacancy without at least one vote from the other party.
And the Democrats, at least some of them, were incensed, and in no mood to play nice.
If the vacancy stood, the Republicans couldn’t have appointed the board’s chair or vice chair Jan. 2 at the annual reorganizational meeting. Or name the committee chairs, or control committee membership.
All decisions would have had to be bipartisan.
Out of power since 2008, the Democrats now held all the cards.
Including the fairness card. Not fairness to the Republicans, but to the 3,456 voters in Oberacker’s District 6 (Maryland, Worcester, Westford and Decatur).
At the Dec. 2 full county board meeting, Marietta, Martini and Stammel were profiles in fairness. All decried the rushed (and partisan) process. But Martini put it this way: “Leaving that district without representation for a year just doesn’t sit well.”
So the three Democrats handed control of the county board – at least until Nov. 4, 2021, the next Election Day – back to the Republicans.
(Also kudos to the board’s sole Conservative, Meg Kennedy, who scheduled a second Admin meeting to interview the Democratic nominee, former Worcester supervisor Diane Addesso, a goodwill gesture, even though it was too late to make a difference.)
To end where we began: Talk is cheap.
Most Democrats and some Republicans have been touting bipartisanship in board deliberations.
But Marietta, Martini and Stammel have shown that, to them, it’s a way of governing, worth more than numerical control.
Well done. Let’s hope, at least for the next year, bipartisanship will rule.
We’ve been here before, with an opposite outcome: In 2006, the Republican representative from Worcester, Don Lindberg, allied himself with the Democratic minority and achieved the board’s chairmanship.
The anger generated by that deal prevented any friendly compromise for the next two years. A recurrence has now been prevented.
‘…Leaving that district without
representation for year…doesn’t sit well.’
Editor’s Note: These were the comments from county Rep. Adrienne Martini, D-Oneonta, prior to voting for the Republican nominee to succeed state Sen.-elect Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, on the county board.
‘I agree with (county Rep. Clark Oliver, D-Oneonta) that the process was a little bumpy, and there were problems with it. It’s also not a process we do on a regular basis. If it should happen again in the near future, I hope that we will remember what we’ve learned.
“I’ve gone back and forth on how I’ll vote. Ultimately I come down where (Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield) does, which is leaving that district without representation for a year just doesn’t sit well.
“We only have 30 days from Representative Oberacker’s resignation to fill the seat by board vote. In a perfect world, the Governor could call for a special election, but the odds of that ever happening are low.
“Additionally, the county would have to bear the cost of having a special election, which is an expense we cannot afford right now. We are still in the middle of a pandemic and it is getting worse in our county.
“The board needs to have a voice from every single district as we face the next few months, which might be even more bleak than the spring was.
“The candidate who was appointed will be up for election in November and her constituents will have a year’s worth of her votes to consider. I hope all parties field a candidate for this seat then so that the voters can decide.
“Because of all of this, I will vote yes on this nominee.”
The county board’s Administration Committee set a poor precedent in deciding to interview candidates for state Sen.-elect Peter Oberacker’s District 6 seat in “executive session” – that is, in secret, out of the public view.
The county attorney, Ellen Coccoma, last week advised the Admin Committee when it interviewed the Republican candidate, Jennifer Mickle, that whether to do so in public or not was optional, up to the reps. To close the door instead of opening it was the wrong way to go.
It was bi-partisan poor judgment, too.
At this past Monday’s Admin meeting to interview the Democratic nominee, Diane Addesso, at least county Rep. Adrienne Martini, D-Oneonta, questioned if darkness should trump light.
Then she said, oh, never mind.
Admin Committee chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick/Milford/New Lisbon, made the motion, and Republicans Ed Frazier and Keith McCarty, and Democrat Andrew Marietta, as well as Martini, went along.
If Mickle, Addesso and Libertarian Andrew Hamill ran for the seat, they would have had to answer questions in public from the public. Why should they get a free ride into Oberacker’s seat without having to tell the public in this limited manner why they want the job and what they would do with it?
After all, when crowned by their fellow representatives, Mickle, Addesso or Hamill would be participating in votes that will have an impact on all of us living in Otsego County.
When this sorry process is over, soul-searching is warranted by all county reps.
The state Committee on Open Government is available to conduct a training session for the board, but it’s as much a question of attitude: Does county government belong to everyone, or to them alone?
ONEONTA – Citing the domestic violence and homeless shelters “essential services,” the Otsego County Board of Representatives and the county’s Department of Social Services have reopened both buildings.
“We’re happy that they have reopened and that they are helping these vulnerable populations in our community,” said county Rep. Adrienne Martini, D-Oneonta, chair of the county board’s Human Services Committee. “It’s so important that they be open and operational.”
ONEONTA – On the morning of Tuesday, March 17, Opportunities for Otsego advised the county Social Services Department it was closing its shelters by 5 p.m. that evening.
“OFO said, because of the new social distancing, they were shutting their doors,” County Attorney Ellen Coccoma advised the county Board of Representatives as this morning’s monthly meeting, held via Facebook Live for the first time.
This involved less than 10 people, and DSS was successful in finding lodging for them in hotels and motels, said county Rep. Adrienne Martini, D-Oneonta, who chairs the county board Human Services Committee.
ONEONTA – It’s not enough for Adrienne Martini to simply run for her seat on the Otsego County Board of Representatives.
She wants you to run for office too.
“If I can do this, anyone can,” she said. “Change has to start locally, and no one knows the local issues like someone who lives here.”
Her third memoir, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It: Why Cursing At The News Won’t Save The Nation, But Your Name On A Local Ballot Can,” will be published on Tuesday, March 3, by Henry Holt & Co.
“I wanted it to be useful and encouraging,” said Martini, a writer and editor at SUNY Oneonta, where her husband Scott Segar is the theatre department’s technical director; the couple has two children. “It took me four months to write the proposal and get an editor interested. They wanted to get it out in the beginning of 2020 to catch the election.”
Martini, a Democrat, was elected in 2017, defeating Republican incumbent Craig Gelbsman for the District 12 seat. “I did what a lot of people did after 2016,” she said. “I realized that nothing was going to change until more people got involved.”
She sought out local Democratic leaders to ask how she could help, but was surprised when they suggested she run. “Rather than drive myself crazy, I did something crazy,” she said.
And she quickly realized that to best represent the people, she needed to understand what they needed.
“I had a woman come up to me at a fundraiser and ask what I thought about broadband,” she said. “I told her I didn’t see it as an issue, and she walked away.
“I realized that the city, where I live, is an outlier. We have two colleges – of course we have broadband – but so much of the county doesn’t, and I realized how important it was. I completely changed my stance on it.”
She also doesn’t shy away from telling readers about the legwork involved, and how campaigns have changed. “They say ‘oh, we’ll do phone calls,’ but everyone has cell phones and those numbers aren’t listed,” she said. “And a lot of times, people aren’t home.”
But with several other newcomers on the ballot, they pooled ideas and resources. “It turned out the stuff I was most uncomfortable with – going door to door to every house – really moved the needle,” she said. “It was rough the first 6,000 times, but on the 6,001, it gets easier.”
And once she was elected, she realized just how important the job was. “It’s just this fire hose of information,” she said. “So many people don’t realize how much government does, and how if it fails, civilization may not be possible. Don’t want rabid raccoons or measles? That’s the county health department. We test wells for contamination. All of it really surprised me.”
What surprised her most, she said, was the county coroner system. “Most people don’t think about what happens to dead bodies,” she said. “But the coroner doesn’t have to have any particular expertise, he just has to go there and get the body, decide if they need an autopsy. You vote for the coroner, and he’s paid by the body.”
The book took just over six months to write. “I made myself a sticker chart,” she said. “I had to write 1,700 words a day to get a sticker. Sometimes I finished at a reasonable time, sometimes it was 10 p.m. at night.”
In early April 2019, she rented a hotel room in North Hampton, N.H., to finish the final draft. “I didn’t want to be distracted,” she said. “Plus there was a great yarn store nearby, so I could reward myself.”
By ADRIENNE MARTINI • County Representative City of Oneonta
I am about to complete my first term on the Otsego County Board of Representatives as the District 12 representative for Wards 3 and 4 in the City of Oneonta. A few weeks ago, I was re-elected and will serve a second two-year term. Like my colleague Edwin J. Frazier, Jr., it has been an honor and a privilege to serve the people who live in this district, regardless of whether they chose to vote for me.
Representative Frazier and I agree on many of the challenges that face our county. We also agree that our department heads and county agencies provide the best services they can to our residents, given the fiscal constraints imposed on them, both by our low property tax rate and by the unfunded state mandates continuously heaped on them. During the last two years, there have been dozens of moments where I have been in awe of what our dedicated employees can do with so little.
I have also been in awe of how much time, taxpayer dollars, and energy could be saved if there were one person in charge of coordinating the vital work our departments do. Take, for example, the efficiency of moving some county services into 242 Main in Oneonta. In order to relocate or create satellite offices for the Office of the Aging, the District Attorney, and Social Services, at least four committees have had to be involved.
While more engagement seems like a good thing, it frequently means four times as much work-time spent in meetings about logistics, rather than time spent providing tangible aid to our more challenged residents. This is not what these department heads have been hired to do, yet they have taken it on because they care about who they serve. These are the kinds of costs that are hard to show on a balance sheet. That does not make them less real.
Representative Frazier would like to see a reduction in the salary and staff of any department head who has had duties reassigned to a county administrator. What he does not account for is that many of these duties don’t belong to any one person or department. Currently, 14 people are responsible for inter-departmental coordination, which effectively means no one is responsible for it.
Still, as Representative Frazier suggests, $250,000 is a lot of money, even if you consider that the county’s budget hovers around $117 million. While we could (and likely will) debate the assumptions made when producing that number, it is a nice round one to use for the sake of argument. Representative Frazier suggested other uses for this amount, including a new 10-wheel dump truck/plow or increased treatment and prevention services to those affected by the opioid crisis. Which, on their surface, are all good things.
What he failed to account for are line items like the cost for maintaining that new dump truck, as well as the salary and fringe benefits for the person hired to drive it. Given the difficulties the county has had hiring people to drive trucks we already own, the assumption that truck could be put in use is large one. The same staffing problem is evident when discussing increased services for those affected by substance use disorder. There are currently funded lines in the budget for social services that we can’t find qualified workers to fill because surrounding counties and the private sector are willing to pay them more.
Representative Frazier and I agree if a county administrator position is created and filled, the structure of the board and its committees should be re-evaluated. Some committees could be eliminated, including Negotiations, Performance Review and Goal Setting, and the Strategic Planning and Technology Committee. If the county administrator position works as drafted, the current number of representatives could be reduced.
While we can make predictions about what might happen once a county administrator is in place, we won’t know until we begin the process, assuming we can find a qualified applicant who will be effective at her or his job. However, we do know now that we are not safeguarding taxpayers’ money as expertly as we could, nor are we allowing our hard-working employees to thrive in the jobs they were trained to do. Simply buying a new truck will not solve those fundamental problems.
COMMUNITY OF RESIDENCE: City of Oneonta District 12
EDUCATION: Allegheny College; University of Texas at Austin
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: I began my career as a writer for a newspaper in Texas. After a few years there and as an editor in Tennessee, we moved to Oneonta to raise our family. Once here, taught for ten years at SUNY Oneonta as well as, on occasion, at Hartwick College. I wrote for the Daily Star both as a reporter and as a columnist. My freelance work has appeared in national publications. Currently, I work as a writer and editor in the SUNY Oneonta Alumni Engagement Office.
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Girls on the Run Coach, UUSO Board of Trustees
FAMILY: Married for 24 years to Scott Segar. We have two kids: Madeline, 15, and Cormac, 12.
PHILOSOPHY OF GOVERNMENT: “We All do Better When We All Do Better” As much as I’d like to claim that quote as my own, those words were said by Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota. When I first heard them, I knew that they summed up the purpose of government. Both as a community and individually, we are only as strong as those around us. It’s up to us to figure out how to ensure equal access for all to decent healthcare, quality education, and living wage jobs. That’s not easy, of course. The first step is creating an accessible and accountable county government that transparently represents all of Otsego county’s citizens.
MAJOR ISSUES FACING OTSEGO COUNTY: Otsego county has an embarrassment of riches, from its dairy farms to its higher education. Yet, as a county, we seem to be stagnating. We are too reliant on the same old leadership that talks a good game but isn’t able to get points on the board. If the county board is making great strides in supporting our business community, protecting our health care, and training a 21st century workforce, it is not transparent enough to show us how it is doing that.
MY QUALITIES: The bulk of my job at SUNY Oneonta is producing the alumni magazine, a three-times per year publication that is mailed to more than 60,000 readers. In order to make that happen, I have to have a deep understanding of schedules, deadlines, and budgets, as well as the ability to co-ordinate all of the parts that need to come together to make it happen. A big part of being a professional writer is also being a professional learner, meaning that I have to understand all of an idea, plan, or policy before I can communicate what it is and what it will do. After a couple of decades in this business, I’m pretty good at asking questions until something makes sense.
STATEMENT: My husband and I chose to live in Oneonta nearly 15 years ago and have never once regretted that decision. This has been a wonderful community in which to raise our kids, grow our careers, and, most recently, move other family members. We’re here for the long haul — and I want this county to thrive in ways that benefit us all.